When you live and work in Antarctica, the coldest, driest, harshest and, in my opinion, the most peaceful place, on the planet; boredom is bound to sink it's frozen jaggy teeth into your warm fleshy backside at some stage. When it does, not only will you know it but your actions will be rather limited, at least if you wish to escape the confines of the little patch of dirt where the mining town styled McMurdo station resided. A place we all called home. Luckily for me though, I had connections because I worked in the Albert P. Crary Science and Engineering Center (CSEC). A three leveled, tiered structure comprising 4,320 square meters complete with it's own library, science offices, labs and my favorite area, the aquarium. Did I mention it had an ocean view? The building was dedicated in November 1991 by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in honor of Geophysicist and Glaciologist Albert P. Crary. It was affectionately known as Crary Lab in station lingo. I know what you're thinking, you're thinking how very cool to be doing science at the bottom of the planet and helping the human race to better understand our place in this fascinating universe. Unfortunately, that is where the fantasy ends and my reality begins. Science wasn't on the cards for me as a career choice. I was in fact part of the roughly 1000 support personnel who keep the place functioning year round. I took a five month stint as a janitor in Antarctica. Yeah, cleaning toilets at the bottom of the planet. I know, crazy, right? Once there, I was assigned to the Crary Lab working the night shift, 6 days a week, 10 hours a day. The amazing scientists who do all the really fascinating work studying astronomy, geology, glaciology, oceanology, volcanology and especially penguinology...these are my people, my connections.
With my connections fast in place and boredom at an all time high after who knows how many days on the ice, it was time for a break from the sweeping, the mopping, the scrubbing, the spraying, the wiping and the spit shiny cleansing of the Crary Lab. It wasn't long before the word "Boondoggle" entered my vocabulary and became my primary goal. Loosely put and in the most simple terms, a boondoggle is a teeny tiny holiday where you get to leave the comfortable familiar often muddy surrounds of the station for a day and get to enjoy some manual labor of a different flavor from what you are used to on a daily basis. Boondoggles were like gold, so very very precious and quite difficult to acquire. All up, I think I scored three during my five months living in Antarctica.
During this particular teeny tiny holiday, I lobbied my lovely new science minded buddies and expressed my interest in being put forth for a boondoggle. Once my people talked with their people and all the right paperwork was properly filled out and signed, a date and time was set. New adventures were soon to commence.
On the day, I show up at the dive shack at the specified time and meet my crew of divers, some I knew, some I didn't. I am informed that today's dive will be a fun dive because it is late in the season and I suppose the scientists need boondoggles too. I wasn't going to argue because I was getting off the base and that was all that really mattered. No staring into white porcelain toilets for me on this day. With introductions made and greetings and salutations accomplished we loaded the dive gear into our lovely fire engine red Ford F-350. I should specify that this isn't your typical Ford F-350 found on the highways and back roads of the world at large. Wipe that image from your head and replace it with this custom Antarctic beast version of a Ford F-350 complete with mattracks, triangular tank like treads that bolt on in place of tires. It actually looks pretty cool, like it drove off a sci-fi movie set.
With the loading completed, I piled into the back seat along with some of the other divers. We were off. Within seconds, the truck shook and shuddered as the treads chewed upon the combination ice dirt road. I think it is fair to say that the ride on treads is no where near the comfort that you'd get if you were rolling on nice plump donut shaped tires. Once we hit the frozen ocean's flat flagged ice road and got up to speed the ride became more tolerable.
As our little brown patch of dirt got smaller and smaller, ultimately vanishing into the distance behind us, we headed out into the vast whiteness which can best be understood if you imagined driving on a flat piece of white paper sized about 200 miles in every direction. We'd pass the odd bamboo stake adorned with a tattered and frayed hunter green flag flapping maniacally in the wind. These were placed at intervals along side the 'road' as a safety measure in the event of condition 1 weather where sustained winds blowing at 102km/h or 63 mph can cause whiteout conditions where visibility becomes less than 30m / 100 feet. Because our day was beautifully clear and crisp with the sun dancing circles high in the sky it was easy to watch white island and black island; the latter of which houses the telecommunications hub for Antarctica, disappear over my left shoulder. The further away we got, the more at peace I felt.
During the ride out there, some of us snacked and or drank a coffee to continue the waking up process, others who failed to win the consciousness battle were lulled back to sleep by the mesmerizing drone, a somewhat soothing rumble from the tracks as they clawed their way along our white crunchy frozen ocean road. With our destination, Cape Evans, a mere 14-15 miles from McMurdo, it wasn't long before we were at our destination.
What stands before us is a little rectangular portable room or dive hut as they are affectionately known. Can't be too much bigger than a school bus, if that. There isn't much but a counter top along one end inside. The floor is painted red and in the center of the rectangular room is a hole, approximately 3.5 foot square. The inside edge of this access point is painted a cautionary yellow for good reason as its centered above a massive cylindrical dive hole. The ice appeared to be 8-10 feet thick and the clear teal water looked a little too inviting, but I knew better.
Everyone's spirits are high as we unloaded the dive tanks and crates of gear into the hut where the scientists are hastily getting prepped in their dry suits. I am assisting where I need to by helping the divers shove their hands into their almost too small dive gloves or by aiding them with their weighty and cumbersome dive tanks. When they are completely suited up, the only exposed skin I can see is a small circle around their lips. This fact explains the nearly blue lips I see on the diver's faces about 45 minutes later after they return from the icy depths below.
I continue to tend to my slightly chilled scientists post dive by helping them out of their awkward, heavy gear and then distributing the soup, hot chocolate and cookies I had prepared while they were having the time of their life. How exactly did I know it was the time of their life? They were an excited, chatty bunch all sharing stories like "did you see the such and such?" and "the light was so amazing coming down the ice wall into the water", as if it were their first dive under the ice. I was excited for them but at the same time I'll have to admit this stung a little. I wanted to be down there with them so badly. I had my PADI open water dive license, I've done night dives as well as some cave diving in the cenotes of Mexico where the only exit to the surface was 10 minutes back the way you came. I could have handled a dive like this easily. Sadly, their rules down there are iron clad and if you aren't a scientist or researcher with a reason to be down there, chances are next to nil you'll get the opportunity.
With scientists finally content in their warm clothes, we packed the gear into the truck and prepped for our departure back to McMurdo. As we were piling back into the vehicle an unexpected question was thrust right at me. "Hey George, would you like to drive back?" As I opened my mouth to give my knee-jerk negative response, because I knew I wasn't qualified or allowed to drive one of these vehicles, my brain stepped in and slowed time so that I could rationalize this important decision. Suddenly I was in that cliche scenario you've seen in cartoons with a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other. Each was whispering nuggets of info one after the other:
Angel: "You shouldn't drive because you've not been approved."
Devil: "Sweet, this truck has tracks, when will you get this chance ever again?"
Angel: "You'll be breaking the rules."
Devil: "Those are their rules, not YOUR rules."
Angel: "This is Antarctica and a frozen ocean road of ice, not Los Angeles with asphalt and traffic."
Devil: "Exactly, this is ANTARCTICA and a FROZEN OCEAN ROAD OF ICE!"
Angel: "You might get kicked off the ice and ruin this wonderful experience you're having."
Devil: "Worth the risk."
Angel: "I'm losing this argument aren't I?"
Devil: "Yeah, because we're going to drive back."
After the most imperceptible hesitation, I perked up and with fireworks going off on the inside with this change of events, I coolly uttered "Yeah, sure...I'll drive."
The return trip to McMurdo was probably the most peaceful and enjoyable 30-40 minutes I've ever had behind the wheel of a vehicle. There was a serene, surreal quality about it once I started to ponder what it was that I was doing. I was at the bottom of the planet in remote Antarctica driving a bunch of sleeping scientist divers back to McMurdo base across the frozen ocean surface in a truck that had triangular tracks as wheels. WTF?